TV that relates to teens: Degrassi is a Canadian TV success story. For more than two decades, it has tackled issues that speak directly to the teenage experience – generation after generation
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
It began very humbly in 1979 when Grade 7 and 8 teacher Linda Schuyler and partner Kit Hood decided to make a movie version of a children’s book called Ida Makes a Movie.
They had no idea then, but this would be the beginning of a television franchise that would still be going strong more than a quarter century later.
Ida and several more stories produced by the fledgling production company, Playing With Time, would become known as The Kids of Degrassi Street.
That gave way to Degrassi Junior High, and later, Degrassi High. The last season of the show was shot in 1990, and the whole thing seemed to come to an end with the TV movie School’s Out, which aired in 1992.
But that wasn’t to be the end after all. A reunion special was made in 1999. Popular characters from the earlier show – Joey, Caitlin, Snake and Spike – were back.
The special led to 13 new episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation being ordered. The new show aired in 2001. Today, the series is in its fifth season. And the whole history of the show has been captured in a comprehensive new book: Degrassi Generations – The Official 411.
The Next Generation introduces a whole new cast of characters – Paige, Craig, Ellie, Emma, JT, Toby, Jimmy, Manny, Marco – who are at the heart of the new story lines.
And while the budget for the new show is roughly double the old one, the issues it deals with are every bit as relevant and controversial. A recent episode features JT facing the fallout from stealing drugs from the pharmacy where he works.
“There are major consequences to JT’s actions,” said actor Ryan Cooley, 17, who plays the character. “We don’t sugar-coat things.”
Schuyler, who is alos the series’ executive producer, says the show continues to tackle controversial subjects, but subjects that reflect what high school kids are really going through.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that we don’t talk down to kids,” Schuyler said in an interview. “We don’t patronize them.”
Schuyler says the new show stays in touch with what’s going on with young people by using a team of young writers. Also, each script is workshopped with the cast to ensure that the subject matter, and how it’s presented, ring true.
She says the cast members also play characters who are the same age as they are.
“The young performers are not bringing any life experience to playing the character that they don’t have.”
Pat Mastroianni, now 33, whose original character, Joey Jeremiah, joined the new show in season two, says he never dreamed when he answered a flyer looking for kids to be in a TV series that he would still be playing the same character two decades later.
Mastroianni says that even he is shocked at some of the issues handled by the new show. Emma (the daughter Spike had in the original show) gets gonorrhea, Paige is date-raped, Ellie cuts herself, Spinner gets an erection in class, and two boys kiss on screen. And, an event that has hit home with many young viewers, Jimmy is shot and paralyzed.
“There’s a consequence for every action, good or bad,” Mastroianni said
His future in the show, he said, is uncertain, however. Once the new cast established itself, the “classic” cast members became like background, without a lot to do dramatically. He said his contract is up after this season, and he’s not sure if he’ll return next year.
“I don’t want to come back if there’s nothing for my character to do.” he said.
There has been time, however, for Joey and Caitlin to revive their high school romance, and then break up again, probably for good.
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Kids on Degrassi
Here is what some local high school students have to say about Degrassi: The Next Generation:
Sarah Galea, 15, Marymount Academy: “It’s a great show. I think we should watch it in school. Some kids who are experiencing these things would get to see it.”
Sara Kalinowska, 15, Marymount Academy: “It deals with a lot of issues related to dating, gay relationships, drugs. I watch it with my mother. Half the things that go on (in the show) she didn’t know go on. She never asked how my friends were doing, how relationships with friends were going. Now she will.”
Amanda Warf-Laraby, 15, Marymount Academy: “Degrassi puts it all together. It gives me more of an idea of what’s happening to us.”
Isabel Oruna, 16, Vincent Massey Collegiate: “Today, TV shows are very exaggerated. This one is very realistic.”
Nicole Koeppe, Royal Vale High School: “My mom thinks she understands me a lot better because of Degrassi.”
Alexa Abay, 15, Marymount Academy: “I found the old one was good, but this one’s better. We can more relate to Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
Vanessa Bastien 15, Vincent Massey Collegiate: “It shows how teens deal with problems – or don’t deal with them.”
Amanda Nardi, 15, Vincent Massey Collegiate: “It deals realistically with situations. It’s like life really is, not just a teen soap opera.”